Excerpts from a WIP in my next Ballet Trilogy piece: Sleeping Beauty retold with a kingdom at stake, and a spider prince’s venomous kiss.
Spider, spider, trapped in sand
Wrap the moonlight round your hands
A silken strand will bind you home
Yet on the winds, you fly alone
He stands, not so tall as the ceiling, but enough to cast a shadow over the room. Yellow eyes adorn his head like a crown, studded jewels that flicker as he tastes the air before him. Fanged pedipalp frame his sharp face, the flesh a slate gray. Centaurine in nature, his upper half is that of a man, the lower, a poisonous beast. A mane of gray-white hair crowns his head, and white markings adorn his body. He stalks closer on eight wicked black legs, closing the distance between us. I bite my lips, heart pounding as I focus in on their serrated tips, his glaring eyes, and the poisonous fangs beneath his strangely beautiful lips.
I brandish my sword, backed against the railing. Webs ring the stairs, in which monstrous broods sleep, spiraling upwards in thick white masses to the top of the tower’s height. He guards his unborn brethren- the heir to the Widow Crown. Were I to fall, I would plummet into the webbed traps, perhaps be strangled by the poisonous silk, or prey to the prince himself.
Yet this is my castle, my home. He and his terrible brood have dared invade, enslaving my people, devouring my father, the righteous king. I am their sole savior.
We look each other down with the eyes of nobles, sworn by duty to our kingdoms, enemies by blood and being. He strikes, and I lash out with my sword, drawing poisonous black blood that leaves acid sizzles across the cool stone. I cry out as it splatters across me, burning away at my flesh. Like the flight of a wounded falcon, I spiral away in a chaotic series of lunges and twists, trying to out-dance the web spinner.
We hurl insults at each other, raging at the shed blood and trails of dead that led here. Terminal bites barely miss my throat, speared legs and clawed hands graze my flesh. Our blood- crimson and blue- mingles on the floor. We do not realize that we are both victims of war, played against each other like pawns in a wicked game.
But we begin to.
He has me pinned, hands holding me in a death grip, about to plunge fangs into my throat. The enzymes will liquify my flesh, and I will disintegrate slowly, mummified within his silken bonds. I flip backwards without warning, taking a death plunge over the railing. Off-kilter, he topples after me, weight crushing the beams. The wood cracks, and futilely he clings to the falling handrail. I scamper up him, gazing in shock down at him from the safety of the staircase.
The fearsome prince’s face is stony, desperate. A tear slicks his cheek, filmy like gunpowder water.
Something cracks within me. Mad, I reach for his hand, and he nearly pulls me after him in his death-ward plunge. The strength of that grip is tremendous, and I realize with horror that breaking me would have been like crushing a fly. Yet he’s held back, hesitant.
He does not mean to kill me.
We sit amongst the rubble of our fury, staring at each other with eyes wide as saucers. Comprehension barely begins to dawn.
He curves wickedly, body like a bowstring.
“You saved me,” he says, incredulous, voice like the snap of a spine.
I nod, awed. “I did…” I whisper, dazed. My sword has fallen far below-
I am at the spider’s mercy.
He is inches from my face, scrutinizing me with curiosity. The ice in his gaze broken by disbelief.
“There has been too much death. I’m sick of it.” He looks at my wounds. “Here,” he says gently. “Let me minister to them.”
I wince as his poisonous spittle acts quickly upon my flesh. “I’d be wiser to trust a scorpion.”
“Only I have the anti-venom,” he said. “We have destroyed your supplies. Now be silent and obey me.”
I spit at his feet. “And bow to a dog! I am queen.”
“And meat like the rest of humanity. Give me your arm.”
Sword-less, I have no choice. He takes my limb gently. “Brace yourself,” the prince says quietly. He bends down and transfers the anti-venom in his mouth onto my wound. It is only a surface one, but it sizzles painfully. I hiss.
“Why are you doing this?” I demand. “You could just as easily take me captive now. I’ve eluded the Widow Queen for months. You’re her crown prince. Surely she would reward you beyond imagining.”
He bandages it with silk from his spinneret, an invaluable substance that sells for hefty prices in the markets of the Slice. He is silent.
“Meet me here tomorrow at dawn. Alone.” The threat in his voice is palpable.
“Alone?” I repeat. “No. I-”
“If you want any hope of peace for your people, you will do as I say. We will flee together alone to the North.”
“You are your mother’s pawn.”
“You assume too much. Family is not so simple in my people. Who says my mother’s motivations are mine, or that my alignments lie with her? Perhaps I lust after her throne. Perhaps her regency has grown stale. Perhaps I disagree with her treatment of your kind.”
I scoff. “A revolutionary kring? There is no such thing.”
He grabs me quickly. I press my arms to his chest in protest, pushing away from him. His pedipalp press into my neck.
“Would you stake your life on it?” he whispers.
“I will hunt for you and serve as your protector. We have a far journey ahead of us.”
“Where are you taking me hostage to?”
“Hostage? No. You are my guest. We are bound for the Northern Hold.”
I balk. The Northern Hold lies fathomless leagues away, past the Hillock Mountains and wastes of Hannival, over the Aquili plains and past the Rosen Caverns of the Sapha. The spiderkring there are virtually unknown, save the bone-chilling stories uttered late at night in taverns. Harsher than their southern counterparts- they have to be to withstand the snake scraths, who are loyal to nothing save their own hides. It is said that the farther north one went, the more brutality ruled.
“I will not lie to you and say that the journey will not be harsh. Our survival is slim, but the rewards we could reap if successful are much more than worthy of the endeavor. Think on it. An alliance between the Holy Triangle and Southern Hold under our combined rules. My bloodthirsty mother overthrown. Finally, after centuries, peace.”
We have edged away from the broken railing, back onto the platform. I’ve settled onto the stairs, level with his chest. I peer up into his calm face.
“I would rather die than align myself with your kind. You have butchered Newmaria like lambs being led to slaughter. You think I will run off with you in some attempt to garner peace? That I could trust the son of the beast that ate my father?”
The prince watches me like I am an ant under a lens, waiting until I burn. “I see we may have some baggage between us,” he says in a low voice like crushed velvet, coming deep from within his throat. I shudder at the way scraths pronounces our tongue. “I am many things. Beast perhaps. But we are both nobility. We understand that our lives are ones of sacrifice. If you could relinquish your pride, I could give you an army.”
I inhale sharply. “An army of half-promises made in the shadows? Will you summon them from the dust of your ambition?”
“Let it be said there are those that oppose the Queen and your kind being treated like animals. She does not see your… uses.”
“You mean our compliance. You lust after our technology.”
“Think on it. Our natural crafts combined with your scientific arts would be legendary.”
“That is impossible. You are predators. All you understand is carnage.”
“If that is true,” he challenged, “then why did I save you?”
I had no answer to that.
We pitched camp in a frozen glen. I notched my bow and bid Saroth farewell as I set out to hunt. I caught the trail of a roe buck and tracked it for an hour, then brought it back to camp for supper. Uneasy tension hung in the air between us.
“Allow me to prepare the meat,” Saroth asked as I fixed a fire and spit.
“Suit yourself,” I said.
He scrutinized me. “You’re cold, Melania. You are still upset about last night.”
“Upset?” I echoed, striking my tinder box. Sparks lit the kindling into flames. “Of course not.”
“I cannot help what I am.” He stripped the deer of its hide, working deftly with his knife-sharp taloned legs. “I am sorry you saw me feed. There is a reason I have been doing so in obscurity. I didn’t want to frighten you.”
His crown of jewel eyes shone in the frozen light. I shuddered, remembering the way he’d plunged his fangs into the doe’s neck. The wet sucking sounds and sudden black necrosis of his victim. The way the deer had folded in on itself as he wrapped its cracking bones in a prison of silk then drank the refuse of its fluids, suspended from the tree. I couldn’t look at his face without seeing the reddish black stains on his lips.
His pupils shrunk to pinpoints. Saroth took choice cuts of meat and roasted them over the spit. He looked to me as they cooked.
“After all this time, you are still afraid of me.”
Saroth sighed. “I look to you and all I see is beauty. Fragility and the tenacity of survival. Humans are conundrums in nature: you lack natural defenses and are the only species unaffected by the Change. To you, I must be repulsive.”
“No, it’s not that, Saroth. You don’t repulse me. There’s something noble about you that humans don’t have- can’t you see that? It was that, in my mind, you’re this high, untouchable prince, aloof and in control. To see you so- so wild. It jarred me.” I reached for the bowl of stream water he’d gathered and set it to boil over the coals. “T- tea?” I said.
His face softened. The silvery markings on his gunmetal skin fluoresced. “Of course.”
We ate in silence. He looked at me with longing. “Melania…?”
“Could you, would you- would you honor me with a dance? Back home, it was customary to hold elaborate balls after suppertime. Each evening, the males would vie for ladies’ hands. You should have seen the way we competed. Web-dancing is lethal, and casualties were not uncommon. One wrong step and you ended fang-side up of a venomous bite.” He smiled in remembrance. “I was the champion dancer. We would swing suspended in the air like so many trapeze artists, passing women from one to the next, then corkscrew down to the floor to dance like mad.”
I imagined kring waltzing, picturing their lethal bodies bending in predatory beauty. I remembered the court dances from the time I’d been forced to serve as the Queen’s cupbearer. They’d been vicious as the snap of a wrist.
“Why, Saroth?” I asked, blunt as usual.
“Because, I want you to see that we have more than our aims in common. Our natures are the same, Melania. We can move in tandem.”
“Us, dance?” I laughed at the idea. “We’re different races, Saroth, and your dance is lethal. I’d break like a toothpick, wouldn’t I?”
“You think we are not of the same material? We curse and bleed and fuck like you. Cut us and we ooze.” He chuckled. “We are the same stuff as men, only harder.”
“You really are a dreamer.”
“Dreamer?” he contemplated, pursing his silvery lips. “I wouldn’t go that far. Care to join me, princess?” he said, rising on his pincers. I took his hand. Snow crust crunched under my boots as he led me to the center of the clearing. My thick breeches were rimed in frost, and under my heavy jacket I moved like a warrior, not royalty. Memories of unending dance lessons with Trenton washed over me. I sucked in air, sharp tears coming without warning.
“Lead me gently,” I said quietly. “I haven’t danced in many moons.”
Saroth’s abs twitched as he swallowed hard. “Yes. It has been… a long time.” A dark shadow crossed over his face. He looked to the tears I quickly dried away. “Sometimes veiling your emotions does more harm than good.”
“And you should not always be so stoic.”
He smiled. “I sense we’ve reached an impasse.” He moved his hands to my waist. “What are you, Melania? Underneath all these layers. Spunk, I would think. But even you have soft places, joints to bend in the breeze…” He held a hand to the air in offering. I placed mine in his, the other on his shoulder. To my surprise, he began to hum, leading me gently through the evening quiet. “This is the Flourish of the Archers,” he informed me, dipping me low in his inexorable arms. “It is my favorite dance.”
Saroth danced me across the snow like I was some fable. I found my feet twisting and twirling, arms outstretched in flourish to match his precision. He threw me into the air, over his back and into a dip, laughing to himself.
“You really are light as a feather. To think of the dances we could create.” He pivoted me by the waist, rocketing me up into the air like a bow and arrow. I laughed, free-falling back into his arms. I added a corté and pulled him into a tango.
“You know how?” I asked. He nodded yes, allowing me to backlead. Our legs met in an alchemy of beast and man, lending a sharpness to the dance that would have otherwise been absent. “This is called Flail of the Dragons,” I explained. “The Red Knights dance it with their ladies each blood moon. When Newmarians dance, the women are weapons, and men the ones who wield us. The most glorious of warriors could make blind women look like royalty on the ballroom floor.”
“I see,” considered Saroth. He got the hang of the tango, leading me into a grapevine and series of hooks and twists. Our legs caught and intertwined. “Then tell me, princess Melania- what article of war are you?”
I rocked my hips back as he staked claim to the ground beneath me. “The oldest of all,” I replied.
“Clubs and rocks?”
“Fire.” I receded like flames. “I am fire, and you, Saroth, are stone. My rock.”